Newest "Top Chef" winner Danny Garcia talks seafood, top ingredients and how he'll honor his mentor

"Jamal always said leave it better than you found it and that’s exactly what we plan to do"

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published July 1, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Danny Garcia on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)
Danny Garcia on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

Brooklyn resident by-way-of-New-Jersey Chef Danny Garcia has had a whirlwind career. After attending culinary school in Rhode Island, he worked at the NoMad and the French Laundry and competed in the Bocuse d'Or before working with his mentor, the late Chef Jamal James Kent in opening Crown Shy and building out Saga restaurants and hospitality group.

In addition to all of that, of course, he's the newly crowned, reigning champ of "Top Chef" as the winner of season 21, which was set in Wisconsin. Danny won seven challenges across the show before clinching the grand prize, which includes a magazine feature in "Food & Wine," an appearance at the Food & Wine Classic, $250,000 and perhaps most importantly, the title of "Top Chef," a mark of distinction which has catapulted some winners (and non-winners!) to endless accolades, awards and recognition. 

Salon Food was able to catch up with Danny after his win to congratulate him and ask him a few questions pertaining to his success on the show, the tragic, recent passing of his mentor and what is coming up next for him. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Congratulations! How does it feel to be crowned "Top Chef?” 

I mean, it's amazing. It feels really great to work so hard for something and see it through all the way to the end. 

Was there anything about competing on the show that you didn't anticipate? Either from the competition standpoint itself, from the TV perspective, or perhaps even from watching yourself back after months have passed?

I don't think so. There was a lot of preparation that was done online. There was a lot of rewatching, there was a lot of studying the show. There was a lot of trying to understand what the expectations were like by talking to previous competitors, and so walking into it, I had a good grasp of what was going on.

 Top ChefKristen Kish, Tom Colicchio, Danny Garcia and Gail Simmons on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo

Which dish were you proudest of? I was impressed with your scallop-cabbage chou farci, as well as the Cheese Fest dish and I’m intrigued by your winning dish in the final four challenge. Also, I loved the sound of your Quick Fire dish of Jimmy Nardellos and harissa relish with labneh and mint. Lastly — you should bottle and sell that "watermelon A1!"

I would say the dish I'm most excited about is the lobster chaaza that I did for the finale. It's a dish that my wife [editor's note: pastry chef Sumaiya Bangee] and her family shared with me. It's their culture, it's Burmese, it's something that's definitely not in the limelight or gets a lot of attention. And to be able to do it at such a high level, on a big stage, execute in my vision and the way I see it and take it to a level of fine dining was really special for me. 

Having my wife and her family share their culture with me and being able to incorporate it into my cuisine is something that is very special for me. 

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Do you have a number-one favorite ingredient to work with?

Number-one favorite ingredient would be seafood. I think all seafood  if it's coming out of the ocean, I want to use it. It's kind of hard to choose one specifically, but I think mackerel is probably one of my favorite fishes to cook and work with.

What was the biggest thing about Wisconsin  either from a food perspective or otherwise  that you've taken with you since filming?

I think it's coming from a big city and going to Wisconsin is definitely a culture shock. But in the best way. The people were amazing. There's more than meets the eye when it comes to food there. There's a lot more offerings. There are a ton of really good restaurants, products, farms. What they're doing for the hospitality industry and their chefs and food in its entirety is really something special.

Were there any guest judges this season that you felt particularly fond of, connected to or impressed by?

There were definitely a bunch of homies that came through — Gregory Gourdet, Mei Lin and Kwame Onwuachi — which was kind of cool to see them and have them address my food from that perspective, especially knowing them from a personal level. 

Carla Hall was super exciting just because my mom's always been a fan of hers for years since I was a little kid, watching her on "Top Chef" and competing. So that was a fun moment. And, of course, Emeril Lagasse is the OG of American chefs right there.

Top ChefKristen Kish, Justin Pichetrungsi, Daniel Jacobs, Manuel "Manny" Barella Lopez, Danny Garcia and Amanda Turner on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

Talk to me a bit about your finale menu, especially that dessert that Tom deemed something that "will become a signature”?  

My thought process was pretty simple: Create a delicious menu that has an incredibly thoughtful through-line.

My vision was to tell the story of some of my first most significant food memories. The dessert idea stemmed from eating desserts with my grandfather after school. The fun part was putting my twist on It and bringing the element of the sea to the dessert. 

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I'm so sorry to hear about Jamal James Kent's passing. You mentioned him in the finale and I'm sure this has been such a remarkably bittersweet week. I wanted to allow you some space/time to speak about his influence and impression on you and how you hope to honor him, his teachings and his legacy moving forward, both personally and professionally? T

Thank you: Jamal was my chef, my mentor, my friend and my confidant. He gave me the platform and tools that got me to this point. He was someone who led with patience and grace.

We are going to honor him by continuing his legacy, building the restaurants he built brighter and bigger, and continuing the projects that we had on the horizon, expanding the group as he envisioned it. Jamal always said leave it better than you found it and that’s exactly what we plan to do.

What do you think was the turning point, dish or moment that really cinched the win for you? 

In regards to the finale in particular, it was hands down my dessert. It was a show stopper, no doubt about it. 

Top ChefDanny Garcia on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

Your final confessional was so honest and moving. Can you talk a bit about what you were feeling in that moment? 

It was a culmination of feelings: pleasure, a sigh of relief. I put a lot of pressure on myself to compete and work at a high level. To be able to see it through and win was just an overwhelming moment — and one that I am incredibly proud of. 

What's next on the agenda for you?

"Time and Tide" is our new restaurant opening this fall. We took a classic approach to New York Steak Houses and flipping on its head with seafood being the star of the show. It’s going to be a really fun place to eat.

I can’t wait to show everyone what we are working on. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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